Archive for April, 2010

Is Middle East Peace Really ‘Vital’?

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

I’d like to test an assumption.

For the longest time, I’ve held that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not only in Israel’s long-term interest — it’s in America’s, as well.

A dramatic news analysis in the Times today — “Obama Speech Signals U.S. Shift on Middle East” — makes clear that this assumption is propelling Obama’s approach to the conflict. And it might mean that Obama will offer his own peace plan, and try to impose it from the top down — instead of waiting for the parties to negotiate a solution themselves.

Resolving the Israel-Palestinian dispute, Obama said, is a “vital national security interest of the United States.”

The article goes on to explain why … sort of.

Mr. Obama said conflicts like the one in the Middle East ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure” — drawing an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It goes on to cite Gen. David Petraeus’s recent Congressional testimony, in which he argued that, as the Times writes, “the lack of progress in the Middle East created a hostile environment for the United States.”

The impasse in negotiations “does create an environment,” [Obama] said Tuesday in a speech in Washington. “It does contribute, if you will, to the overall environment within which we operate.”

Condoleeza Rice made similar comments three years ago, arguing that resolving the conflict is a U.S. “strategic interest,” in part because “The prolonged experience of deprivation and humiliation can radicalize even normal people.”

Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now at Brookings, argues that the issue is central because we have thousands of troops fighting in the Middle East.

“Will resolving the Palestinian issue solve everything?” Mr. Indyk said. “No. But will it help us get there? Yes.”

I guess my question is: how?

The assumption — which has always been my assumption — is that peace between Israel and the Palestinians will remove a major radicalizing element across the Middle East. But that’s a hypothesis that’s hard to test. Do we really believe that if peace broke out tomorrow, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah and all of the anti-Western clerics would suddenly cease their anti-American rhetoric and find common cause with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank?

Isn’t it more likely that they would find another convenient propoganda tool to agitate followers? Might they not continue to rail against a shrunken state of Israel, or point to injustices in Gaza, or cite American troops in Afghanistan as a rallying cry?

Do American military commanders really believe Muslim radicals will suddenly lay down their arms and sing kumbaya?

“I don’t think that anybody believes American lives are endangered or materially affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Mr. [Robert] Wexler, [a former Democratic congressman] who has close ties to administration officials. “That’s an oversimplification. However, you’d have to have blinders on not to recognize that there are issues in one arena that affect other arenas.”

This argument seems a bit mushy to me. What other arenas would it affect? And how, specifically? What evidence do we have, anecdotal or otherwise?

Thomas Friedman made this argument in a recent column:

America [has gone] from having only a small symbolic number of soldiers in the Middle East to running two wars there — in Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as a global struggle against violent Muslim extremists. With U.S. soldiers literally walking the Arab street — and, therefore, more in need than ever of Muslim good will to protect themselves and defeat Muslim extremists — Israeli-Palestinian peace has gone from being a post-cold-war hobby of U.S. diplomats to being a necessity.

He points out that both Biden and Petraeus have recently made this case, arguing that “the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict foments anti-U.S. sentiments, because of the perception that America usually sides with Israel, and these sentiments are exploited by Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran to generate anti-Americanism that complicates life for our soldiers in the region.”

“I wouldn’t exaggerate this,” Friedman writes, ”but I would not dismiss it either.”

This seems like a sensible place to land. Which raises the question: Is Obama, by calling this a “vital national security interest,” exaggerating it?

I think it will be critical, in the coming weeks and months — particularly if Obama continues to pressure Israel — for the administration to make its case, in concrete terms.

If we could wave a magic wand and have a peace deal tomorrow, how much less complicated would life be for our soldiers in the Middle East? How much Muslim good will would really be generated, and how enduring would it be? Will it really help us snuff out Islamic radicalism, or will the goalposts simply shift? How can we be sure?

With Israel’s security at stake, this is no time for mushy thinking or wishful strategizing. The answers to these questions are vital.

Is Jon Kyl Paying Attention?

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Jon Kyl, a Republican Senator from Arizona, had this to say about President Obama’s nuclear summit:

“The summit’s purported accomplishment is a nonbinding communiqué that largely restates current policy, and makes no meaningful progress in dealing with nuclear terrorism threats or the ticking clock represented by Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Consequently, he has vowed to oppose nuclear treaties that Obama is working so hard to sign.

Sometimes I wonder where Republicans get the chutzpah.

Did Kyl miss the part where China agreed, for the first time this week, to discuss a serious sanctions regime against Iran?

Did Kyl not notice that Canada, Mexico, and Ukraine promised to eliminate or give up their surplus weapons-grade materials?

No meaninfgul progress? Really?

Did Kyl miss this, from the Times:

At the end of two days of meetings, Mr. Obama could claim two major accomplishments: The summit meeting forced countries that had failed to clean up their nuclear surpluses to formulate detailed plans to deal with them, and it kicked into action nations that had failed to move on previous commitments.

These are steps. Yes, meaningful steps.

Obama is showing true leadership on this issue, because, as he says, one of the gravest threats to our security is a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist. Would Kyl disagree that this is a threat? If not, why would he throw such prominent darts at the first serious diplomatic effort in a decade to address it?

Wouldn’t it be better — and in our national security interest — for lawmakers (even Republicans!) to forcefully articulate whether they agree with Obama’s assessment of the threat, and at least fairly note the steps taken this week to make the world safer? Couldn’t you do this — and still offer constructive criticism, instead of a broadside? Wouldn’t such a broadside ultimately undermine any positive steps, weaken the overall effort, and thus make America less safe?

Ask Jon Kyl.

Welcome to the Table, China

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Whether President Obama’s first term is ultimately viewed as a success, I believe, will depend on two things:

  • How well has the economy rebounded — and what is the employment situation like? And …
  • Has Iran been thwarted — or quantifiably set back — in its effort to build a nuclear bomb?

Which is why it’s a very welcome development that China has finally agreed to join negotiations over a new package of sanctions against Iran.

As the NY Times reports, the Chinese import nearly 12 percent of their oil from Iran, and are reluctant to join a sanctions regime, because Iranian retaliation would cost them dearly.

The key appears to be that the Obama administration is actively working to ensure that, should China agree to sanctions, it will have access to other oil. Here’s the nut:

“Until two weeks ago, the Chinese would not discuss a sanctions resolution at all,” [an administration] official said. But the Obama administration, in hopes of winning over Beijing, has sought support from other oil producers to reassure China of its oil supply. Last year, it dispatched a senior White House adviser on Iran, Dennis B. Ross, to Saudi Arabia to seek a guarantee that it would help supply China’s needs, in the event of an Iranian cutoff.

“We’ll look for ways to make sure that if there are sanctions, they won’t be negatively affected,” said the senior official.

According to the Times, Obama wants serious sanctions in place against Iran by this spring.  As Iran well knows, any sanctions against it would by pyrrhic without Russia and China joining in. China’s decision to pull up a chair at the table does not of course mean it will ultimately stand with America behind a package of sanctions. But in what will continue to be a difficult diplomatic tango for Obama, today’s news is a welcome step.

Jews Still Support Obama

Monday, April 12th, 2010

For all the hyperventilating from American Jewish leaders about how terrible Obama is on Israel – Caroline Glick at the Jerusalem Post has gone as far to suggest that Obama is intentionally “fomenting a crisis in U.S. relations with Israel” — the latest polling shows a majority of American Jews firmly support the U.S. president on Israel.

According to the poll, 57 percent of American Jews support Obama, while 38 percent disapprove. And a full 55 percent approve of how Obama is handling Israel, while 37 percent take the opposite view.

(By comparison, only 50 percent of Jews approve of the way Obama is handling health care; 48 percent disapprove.)

And, despite all the huffing and puffing about a crisis between the two countries — a supposed material breach — a full 73 percent still view the U.S.-Israel relationship as somewhat or very positive.

What this tells me is that Obama may be more in touch with the pulse of the American Jewish community, writ large, than the Jewish leaders who pillory his policies.

Perhaps the most telling — and frightening — number in the entire poll is the very last one. While a solid majority (74 percent) say they feel fairly or very close to Israel, a full 25 percent say they feel fairly or very distant. That’s one out of four American Jews. And it does not bode well.

Glick, in her column, argues unpersuasively that Obama is intentionally trying to sabotage Israel’s image among American Jews, to drive down popular support for Israel.

These numbers suggest to me that Israel’s support is already diminished, as a generation of Jewish Americans who haven’t known anti-Semitism and have little connection to the Holocaust come of age – amid interminable Middle East conflict.

Breaking the Heart of Hope

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Gary Wills, professor emeritus of history at Northwestern, reviews David Remnick’s new book about Obama in the New York Times today. Here are his final four lines:

Continuity easily turns into inertia, as we found when Obama wasted the first year of his term, the optimum time for getting things done. He may have drunk his own Kool-Aid — believing that his election could of itself usher in a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state and blue-state era. That is a change no one should ever have believed in. The price of winningness can be losing; and that, in this scary time, is enough to break the heart of hope.

This summation feels way too pat to me — especially for a history professor. Inertia? All Obama tried to do in his first term was to pass a politically-unpopular stimulus bill because it was the best thing to do to right the faltered economy, and then pass a health care bill, to insure 30 million un-insured. (And why are these times more scary than others? 1980? 1967? 1963? 1947? 1939-1944? 1917 … 1861-1865? …)

Obama still believes he can work across party lines. Maybe Wills would call this naive.

I’d call it something else.

The most insightful lines in the book review come near the beginning. Obama, Wills writes:

is a bit of a chameleon or shape-shifter, but he does not come across as insincere — that is the importance of his famous “cool.” He does not have the hot eagerness of the con man.

That is — he’s authentic. I’d argue that for Obama, the price of winningness is sincerity. I think voters see that. Even voters who don’t like him.

Over time, authenticity in politics carries the day.